Next on scene: First-response photographer's pictures attract widespread attention

Photo courtesy of Michael O'Keefe - Michael O'Keefe takes some shots from a PHI Air Medical helicopter, the latest venture in his life as a first response photographer. O'Keefe takes pictures of traffic accidents, fires and all things emergency around McKinney and surrounding areas.

Michael O'Keefe sleeps with one ear open, his police scanner and camera beside him. That's the night life of this photographer, a man who's always prepared.

A picturesque knack is always there.

"As soon as that gal gets on the radio and says engine one, truck two, engine four, engine six - by that point, I'm out of bed because I know that's a structure fire," said O'Keefe, creator of First Response Photography, an online collection of pictures chronicling McKinney's and Collin County's newsiest emergencies. "At 2 o'clock in the morning when those tongs go out, I'm gone, out the door, in my Jeep and on the road in a few minutes."

And on the scene of a fire, highway collision or gas explosion soon after those in uniform. O'Keefe runs Creative By Nature, a landscape company that opened in McKinney in 2010, but stays ever focused on his passion: capturing breaking news with a flash.

Whether he gets there as flames and sirens abound, or in time for firefighter cleanup, he's almost always there - even if that means closing the shop gates in the middle of a rush.

"I always carry a scanner and camera, and I've been doing that since I was 16," he said.

That's when a car accident forever honed O'Keefe's photographic niche. He was taking pictures of trains in Duncanville when a lady involved in the on-scene accident offered him cash for his impromptu photos. She wanted them to show to her insurance company.

His lens work shifted from trains to occasional tragedies. O'Keefe ran away from home the next year, and worked for a mobile food service while living in a guard shack and tree house until stability came. He started an aquarium maintenance business that led into the pond and landscape business, emphasized for three years on a Garden Talk radio show on weekend mornings.

Always constant, though, was photography.

"Even when I was on the streets, I had my camera and scanner," he recalled. "Once you start doing it, you've got the bug, you don't stop. You never want to be in a situation where you don't know what's going on and you miss a good call."

Since taking a photography hiatus between 2006 and 2010, O'Keefe has missed few calls. He was there several months ago to capture the gas explosion near Medical Center of McKinney, from which one photo will soon be the front cover of Underground Focus magazine. "Showing a picture of an 80-foot-tall ball of flames is a good way to scare contractors from making mistakes like that," he said.

He captured Storybook Ranch's recent building fire, his shots shown all over local news media, and the aftermath of shootings in New Hope and McKinney in 2012.

And others - including the first responders who often cringe at news crews' arrival - are noticing. His Facebook photo page reached 8,000 likes this week, just 14 months after its inception.

"Collin County is a nice place to live but with just enough activity to keep me fulfilled," he said. "I've managed to get a handful of shots in a short period of time that have really got a lot of publicity, and it's really taken off."

The McKinney fire and police departments know him well. They sometimes use his photos to document and debrief a scene and how it was handled. Others pay him for photos to hang in their homes and stations - a few historic instants captured forever.

"He takes great photographs that we've used in a variety of ways, even for historical purposes," said Stacie Durham, McKinney Fire Department spokesperson. "We certainly have an excellent work relationship. He's enthusiastic and wants to do a great job of documenting what happens not just in McKinney but surrounding areas, as well."

But, Durham added, call chasers like O'Keefe generally aren't welcomed with open arms, particularly at tragic happenings. It's been a lengthy process for O'Keefe to get the access he has, she said.

O'Keefe, who credits 80 percent of his photographic success to his professionalism and developed accord with first responders, knows unwelcome well. He's had citizens chase him, cuss him out and call him a monster.

"The photographer on scene, especially in traffic accidents, is not invited," he said. "You're the last person somebody wants to see when their car is all crunched up or their kid is hurt and there are sirens everywhere. It's often the worst moment of their life, and they're amped up, so the biggest thing is to stay out of sight."

Something his images aren't able to do, anymore.

"With this citizen journalism thing, media outlets are hungry for what's going on in town and love to share it. A picture's worth a thousand words," he said. "It blows my mind that my still pictures are being used for what's commonly shown by video on the major outlets."

O'Keefe this weekend will be with PHI Air Medical crews, documenting their above-ground service. His ensuing itinerary involves visits to other such crews around the state and country.

In the meantime, he'll talk to people about the latest mulch or garden tool, before returning home, still on the clock. A first response photographer never truly sleeps.

"It's like a drug - you get addicted to it, the thrill, excitement, adrenaline of capturing breaking news," he said. "There's nothing like it."

To view O'Keefe's photos, search "First Response Photography" on Facebook.

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